Two Poems

Poetry / Keunhae Lee

:: Fire and Silence ::

In Gyeongju, father tucked his feet beneath
him, kneeling low, his bombast stilled for once.
His cousins crouched around a silver spray
from a metal spigot thrust from a concrete pad
behind the house to wash a bloodied skull.

In the main room, low-slung trays bulged
burdened dishes laden with spiced pickles.
My sister, curled on mother’s lap, wept 
in ugly waves. A cousin grinned and warned 
us not to eat the meat and jerked his head
towards a partly empty pen. The dogs
there in watchful repose, ready sprung. 
An aunt shushed him before he spoke, but still
I grasped already what my sister witnessed.

Steaming pans of stew, garlicky and hot, 
thick with strands of brown meat which hung 
tangled like slender noodle clumps,
roused dinner and the soft click 
of metal chopsticks against steel bowls 
and breath blowing across hot food.

Walking alone through the woods 
the next day, my fingers 
brushed against a poison 
caterpillar hidden 
on the underside of a leaf. 
The pain was immediate, 
intense fire arcing
its way up my hand.

What blaze was stayed as I braced my wrist amid the forest calm?


:: How Debt Travels ::

I punched my fist through ice formed
owing to the prolonged decline in mercury 
over a five-gallon bucket.

The ice dipped and bobbed as if it, 
the bucket, wanted to be the ocean
deep in the arctic, 

owing to the sustained upsurge of water
owing to my hand and arm’s descent
that barely scraped the bottom
of the white bucket 

owing to my short stature
owing to my brief life of five years 
owing to time’s sustained progression.

I washed my tongue with water
owing to injury caused by grownups
in the way that children often are.
I spit and did not swallow

owing to what I knew about poison
and kept my mouth shut
owing to the fragility of grownups

owing to their fear of death
who yawns wide like a lion 
who pinned the tail of a mouse
with its knife point claw

owing to death’s inevitable arrival
owing to real mortality
owing to a failing body
that really is only made of mud

or God’s spit and ash
owing to uncertainty of biblical accounts
owing to unreliability of the human tongue

owing to the porousness of memory
owing to fantastical feats of mind
owing to fallibility of electric pulse
of synaptic leaps from terminal to terminal.

I kept my mouth shut
owing to self-preservation or moxie
and now those grownups are gone or faraway
and now I am taller owing to time’s persistent crawl
and now I am fragile and their debt is mine.

I have carried it with me and towed it forward,
cradled it until the still hours of dawn, 
and now I wonder who could come collect
if I should leave this debt behind.


From the writer

:: Account ::

Gen­er­al­ly, I have noticed that the past asks to be revis­it­ed and made rel­e­vant, if not entire­ly under­stood. In these poems, I write about moments in my life that will not be qui­et. It has been a chal­lenge to pare these moments down to what I think are essen­tial to the integri­ty of each poem.

For exam­ple, “Fire and Silence” began as a long nar­ra­tive poem about the events of two days in Gey­ongju, South Korea. As I began the process of edit­ing, I noticed a sense of things being con­strained and released, like a closed fist open­ing to out­spread fin­gers. I chose to keep images that I hope con­vey that sense. The peo­ple in this poem are con­strained in some way, described as being “crouched” or “curled up.” Even the dogs hold back “in watch­ful repose,” where­as descrip­tions of food tend to mean­der a lit­tle more, open up and spread out. I hoped to mim­ic that sense of a closed fist open­ing in the form as well, using lines with 5 stress­es, to 4, to 3, and then relax­ing that con­straint in the last line, where I used 7 stresses.

For “How Debt Trav­els,” I real­ly want­ed to use a chant of some kind and looked all over the place for an estab­lished closed form. There is most like­ly some­thing out there that would have worked, but I wasn’t able to find one I felt would fit. In the end, I decid­ed there was noth­ing wrong with just straight rep­e­ti­tion inspired by reli­gious chants since the poem deals with reli­gious themes of sin, lega­cy and death. I real­ly want­ed to empha­size the inter­de­pen­dence of things and actions by sug­gest­ing a causal rela­tion­ship between each set of lines. In this poem, I focused not on the num­ber of stress­es to deter­mine line breaks, but dis­crete images or ideas instead. I used my own breath as a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor for deter­min­ing stan­za breaks. It was real­ly fun to write and to read aloud!


Keun­hae Lee received her MFA from NC State Uni­ver­si­ty and cur­rent­ly lives in Bon­ney Lake, WA.